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Idris Elba Turns the Tables

On his new Netflix show, ‘Turn Up Charlie,’ the British actor plays a DJ — and in real life, the man formerly known as ‘DJ Big Driis’ is prepping for Coachella

Idris Elba performs after walking onstage to the Bond Theme at Elrow Town london at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on August 18, 2018 in London.

Idris Elba performing in London in August 2018.

Ollie Millington/Redferns/Getty Images

When Coachella released its 2019 lineup poster, one name in near-microscopic print, buried under the likes of Weezer and Childish Gambino, confused a few people: Idris Elba. The British actor is famous for his leading role on The Wire and the BBC crime drama Luther, but few Americans know about his side career as a DJ. And for DJ Big Driis, as he once billed himself, this gig is a dream come true. “Doesn’t matter how big my name is on the poster,” he says. “This is massive for me!”

Elba traces the start of his DJ’ing obsession all the way back to his parents’ living room when he was a young child. “I’ve got this picture of me where I’m four years old and I’m holding Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On album cover,” he says. “I guess that was me wanting to DJ. My dad would let me stare at his record player but not let me touch it. But then growing up in my mum and dad’s house, there was lots of parties, and my dad finally allowed me to DJ. I was probably nine or 10. It was the disco era, so I was playing things like ‘Ring My Bell.'”

As a teenager, Elba worked the turntables at weddings and christenings and other events around his native London. And long before he even thought about being an actor, he dreamed of spinning records on the radio. “I loved the idea of talking about songs, in between songs, and playing the next one,” he says. “By the time I had an awareness that this could be a job, I definitely wanted to do that.”

In the late Nineties, he moved to New York City, where he made a living selling pot, working as a bouncer at the famed Carolines comedy club and finding DJ gigs where he could. At times, he was forced to live in his Chevy Astro van. “I created sets that had everything from reggae to house to hip-hop to even some Latin music,” he says. “The East Village had a little bit more of an eclectic taste. I really enjoyed that time.”

Elba’s life changed forever when he got a leading role on The Wire in 2002, but even after he started landing major movies, he refused to give up on his original love. “Once The Wire came in, I tried to DJ as much as I could,” he says. “My profile went up and the money went up along with it. It definitely fell second place to acting but then I got serious about it. I got myself an agent, a DJ manager, and it was like a second career, a side-hustle.”

The side-hustle merged with the main hustle once he began releasing music inspired by his acting gigs, including 2014’s Idris Elba Presents Mi Mandela and 2015’s Murdah Loves John (The John Luther Character Album). Even so, he has to battle the misconception that he’s just another celebrity DJ who collects a huge paycheck by walking onto a stage and simply hitting the play button on a laptop. “People are going to make up their own minds when they see me spin,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, wow. He’s not really just some dude up there hitting one key. He’s made some songs and he’s contributed.'”

Elba’s new Netflix show Turn Up Charlie, which he co-created, is another chance to show fans his musical side. He plays a one-hit wonder DJ from the Nineties that’s forced to become a nanny to his wealthy friend’s daughter in order to pay the bills. It’s a breezy sitcom far removed from his serious acting roles of the past. “The original drive behind it was to just do something lighthearted, something with a little levity, something that takes me out my comfort zone a smidgen,” he says. “So, doing a comedy was it. I’ve never done a sitcom before this.”

If things had gone a little differently for Elba, it’s quite possible he’d be leading a life much like the main character. “I think I would be a little bit more organized than Charlie is,” he says. “But I definitely feel like I would be trying to climb up the ladder of being a successful DJ. This show is about people that never give up on their dreams.”

One of Elba’s dreams came true this year when he teamed up with Sean Paul and British rappers Wiley and Stefflon to create a song named “Boasty” where he raps over a reggae beat. It became a surprise radio hit in England. “It is the child of my ambition to rap a lot more,” he says. “I’m in the process of constantly dreaming about doing a rap album. I don’t know how or when, but I’m definitely going to do it.”

In the meantime, he’s looking forward to his big moment at Coachella in April. “It’s the pinnacle for me as a DJ,” Elba says. “People might come out of curiosity, but I’m playing a two-hour set of hard, techie house music. Hopefully, they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

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